How much can an 11-year old handle?
January 25, 2008 9:55 AM   Subscribe

My niece's mom is an alcohol/drug addict. My niece has consistent contact with her mom over the phone. Did I do the right thing in letting her know about her mom's problem? If not, can I mitigate the damage I've done?

I know it's long, so I tried to highlight the important bits.

Some background info: In September '07, my husband and I took over legal guardianship of my niece due to my sister's unemployment and subsequent homelessness. In November 07, my sister was in a coma as a result of liver failure brought on by an acetaminophen overdose (found in Vicodin). It took her a month for her to get out of the hospital and continues to have painful nerve damage from the experience.

We took our niece to see her mom in the hospital (while she was in the coma, because it was believed that she wouldn't survive). At that time, we talked to my niece about the possibility of her mom's death. Her response was that she has "been prepared for it since she was 2". She is fully aware of the amount of drugs and drinking her mom used to do, but didn't fully understand what she was seeing until she asked us. (As a policy, we don't lie to her. We will try to soften the truth, but we won't outright lie.)

Current situation: My sister is living with our mother and her new husband (not our dad). Since the hospital, her liver has recovered almost fully (no cirrhosis). About three weeks ago, she was taken to the ER by our mother after an overdose on Soma (an old script given before the coma that had unused refills on it).

After the Soma incident, our mom gave her an ultimatum: stop abusing drugs or move out (she's worried that her husband will lose joint custody of his two children). My sister expressed regret and a commitment to living drug- and alcohol-free. She started seeing a substance abuse counselor two times since the incident.

However, within the past week, she was found totally passed-out drunk -- twice! It was the final straw and our mom kicked her out. My sister insists that she's not drinking (despite the bottles of evidence) and offers the typical alcoholic excuses ("I was recycling the bottles for my friends"). In addition, she's been taking more than the recommended dosage of the prescription meds and it's likely that she's mixing the meds (Ambien and others, all non-narcotics) with alcohol.

My sister, when drunk/drugged, is completely obnoxious and abusive. and will talk about things that are utterly ridiculous. She'll make false accusations, yell excuses, cry, be confrontational, recall things that never happened, and just generally berate everyone.

We have always had an open policy with my niece getting phone calls (almost daily) from her mother, but I worry that my sister will start drunk-dialing her, too. I worry about the things she'll say to my niece on the unmonitored calls. I worry that my sister's behavior will permanently damage the relationship between her and her daughter. But mostly, I worry about my niece and I want to protect her from dealing with her mother in this state.

Last night, I decided to tell my niece that I was worried that her mom was drinking again and that I didn't want her to have to deal with her mom in that state. I gave her the choice: if she wants, I can talk to her mom first to see if she's "in her right mind", or I can let her talk to her mom first and if she's not "in her right mind" my niece could give me the phone. I told her that I wanted to protect her because she's only 11 and shouldn't have to deal with this. I also said that it was unfair that we give her mom a reward -- getting to talk to her daughter -- when she was doing bad things.

My niece opted for seeing for herself if her mom was in her right mind "for a little while". I could tell by her reaction that she was not happy with the news and really wanted to block out the reality of the situation (she squints her eyes closed when she's trying to block out information she doesn't like).

So, now I'm having second thoughts and thinking that I should have just taken on the role of gatekeeper without letting my niece know why. (FWIW, my husband didn't disagree with me, though; he sees all my sister's destructive actions as "white noise" -- barely registering with him anymore.)

So, did I do the wrong thing in letting her know about her mom's problem? How can I mitigate the damage I've done?

I feel like I'm relying on AskMe for help in raising my niece. Sorry about that!
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Wow; that sounds like a tough situation. I'm not sure anyone can tell you whether you did the "right" or "wrong" thing in telling your niece--although it's a really heavy thing to lay on an 11-year-old, I'm sure it's better to hear it from you than to realize it on her own and feel like she had to hide it from you. Keeping that kind of secret can be really corrosive for someone that age.

With that said, I'd say that the best thing you can do is provide a non-judgmental ear for her to work out her feelings with about her mom. If she is talking to her mom when her mom is drunk or out of it, it will probably make her feel horrible, and talking about it can really lighten the load. It's really important not to push her to talk if she doesn't want to, though--she probably feels a bit of divided loyalties right now, and you don't want to put her in a position where she feels like she has to hide what's going on in her relationship with her mom in an effort to stay loyal to her or protect her.

I'm a big fan of non-threatening, somewhat-vague, and sometimes one-sided conversations in the car, where you don't have to look each other in the eye. If you can lead the conversation into the general vicinity, and make it clear that you're willing to talk about it without putting her on the spot to say something, she'll probably open up. (Or not. But at least she'll know she *can*, which is really valuable anyway.) If it were me, I'd probably ask her how her mother is doing, then say something to the effect of, "I feel so badly that I don't know what to do to help your mom. She's having a really tough time of it right now, and sometimes it's hard for me to know what to say to her to make it better--even though I know that it's something she has to figure out on her own, and nothing I say is going to make that easier or harder for her. It makes me sad. I hope that you're doing okay."

Putting that sort of thing out there but not pushing her to tell you how she feels lets her know that it's okay to feel bad or conflicted after speaking with her mom, and that you understand, and that she can talk to you, but it's also the sort of thing that she can mumble a noncommittal response to and it won't feel weird.
posted by iminurmefi at 10:15 AM on January 25, 2008

(Oh, and one little thing--I'd really back off statements like "it's unfair to give your mom a reward like talking to you when she's been drinking"--I understand what you're saying, but as a former 11-year-old, I can really see her internalizing that message as saying that she's somehow in a position to affect her mom's behavior. She's not. If getting kicked out of your mother's house wasn't enough to stop her addiction, then being unable to talk to her daughter won't either, and it's not good to put the thought in your niece's head that it might. Let your niece make her own decisions about what she wants to do or not do based on what she feels is right for *her*, and keep emphasizing that her mom's problems are something her mom is going to have to figure out on her own. Concentrate on teaching her to draw her boundaries based on what she can handle while knowing that she can't ever really change someone else's behavior. That's a valuable lesson for anyone to learn, and doubly important for someone with an addict in their life to learn.)
posted by iminurmefi at 10:21 AM on January 25, 2008

This girl is aware of her mother's problem (whether you tell her directly or not) and while she might not like the things her mother says or does while she is under the influence she will always love her mother. She deserves to be able to talk to her mom as much as she wants. Attempting to punish the mother really only will make the girl feel bad so leave it up to her to decide how much time she talks to her mom. Just try to give her a good example of how functional adults live their lives and tell her you love her as often as you can.
posted by estronaut at 10:22 AM on January 25, 2008

She said she's been ready for it since she was two. Yeah, you did the right thing, keeping her in the loop. Sounds like you've got a really thoughtful child on your hands.
posted by notsnot at 10:24 AM on January 25, 2008

kids of addicts end up burdened with adult responsibilities prematurely. It is great that you are looking out for your nice. I think you should tell her that you've realized it isn't fair to her to be assessing her mother's state when she calls and that for now, you are going to help by screening.

The thing that strikes me is that you've told your niece that you don't want talking to her to be a reward for her mothers abusing. Honesry and openness is one thing, but that is a completely unfair thing to lay on a kid.
posted by Good Brain at 10:25 AM on January 25, 2008

I don't think you did the wrong thing at all. Your niece needs protection; that is your role as her guardian. This may sound counterintuitive, but I think the way to protect her from her mother's illness is NOT to hide it from her and offer vague half-truths about why her mom acts the way she does. Your niece will find out the truth in its entirety sooner or later, and it'll only be harder for her if she thinks that no one at all was willing to be frank with her.

The best way to protect her is to be honest with her; let her, within reason and in a safe way, be involved in establishing boundaries in her relationship with her mother; and let her know you and your husband represent the stability that she can't get from her relationship with her mother.

Good luck. You and your husband have done a great thing in taking your niece in. Be sure to give yourself credit for that!
posted by jesourie at 10:29 AM on January 25, 2008

Disclaimer: I know absolutely nothing about what it's like to be an 11-year-old girl in her situation.

I think it's hard for her to grasp the whole situation, really.

I find her comment about her having "been prepared for it since she was 2" to be really odd, BTW. Part of me thinks it reflects that, on some level, she processes what's going on with her mom. But part of it still seems like an odd comment.

I think she already knew; I think the hard part may have been hearing someone in your position expressing concern about her mother. I think you need to be careful about not worrying her excessively, but hiding the whole situation from her is bad, and lying would be even worse.

Two closing comments:

How can I mitigate the damage I've done?
I know what you were actually asking, but I think the only answer here is: You're not the one doing the damage here.

I feel like I'm relying on AskMe for help in raising my niece. Sorry about that!
Based on the answers I've seen in my time on this site, the Ask MeFi community is one of the few ones I'd trust to help raise a child.

posted by fogster at 10:29 AM on January 25, 2008

You definitely did the right thing. Kids her age are smarter than a lot of people give them credit for, and at a certain point you can't keep them sheltered from reality.

I also said that it was unfair that we give her mom a reward -- getting to talk to her daughter -- when she was doing bad things.

In my opinion, this is not a good way of looking at the situation. An 11-year-old kid should be able to have contact with her mother unless that contact would be unsafe or damaging to her. Punishing her mother by cutting her off is probably not a good enough reason.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:29 AM on January 25, 2008

you've done the right thing so far, and your niece knows more than you give her credit for.
posted by bruce at 10:30 AM on January 25, 2008

I encourage you to look into the support and advice that the foster care families and foster to adopt families can provide. Your situation is very much in line with what these families face. Good luck.
posted by onhazier at 10:39 AM on January 25, 2008

When I was 12 my parents broke up and I was taken away from them because they were both drug addicts. It was the one of the happiest days of my life.

So, speaking as having been an 11-year-old with an alcoholic/drug addict parent? She knows and grasps what's going on.

She wants to stay in touch with her mom because it makes her feel better. If she can't talk to her, she will imagine scenarios far worse than what is really happening. Trust me, she is stressed out enough as it is; she doesn't need to worry herself sick by not knowing what's going on with her mother.

Also, don't worry about sheltering her, but also don't trash-talk her mother at every opportunity (I'm sure you wouldn't do this, but don't let anyone else do it either). It's hard enough on her living with the reality of the situation; she will feel worse about herself if she constantly hears negative things about her mom.

It would not hurt to get her into some kind of therapy to help her deal with what she's feeling (I mean, puberty's imminent!) so that she can break the cycle of low self-esteem and self-abuse in her own life; all too often, we repeat our parents' mistakes.
posted by Unicorn on the cob at 10:49 AM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

"So, did I do the wrong thing in letting her know about her mom's problem? How can I mitigate the damage I've done?"

Odds are that the kid would figure it out for herself the first time her mom called her while drunk. By giving her a bit of advance notice and giving a choice in how to handle it, you're allowing your niece to feel a little more in control of the situation. I think that you may have chosen the best option.
posted by tdismukes at 11:00 AM on January 25, 2008

(I should add that my previous answer is from the standpoint of someone who grew up with a mentally ill mother.)
posted by tdismukes at 11:04 AM on January 25, 2008

I may have a slightly different perspective than the others who have posted here.

I think it's good that you are keeping her in the loop about her mother. She of course understands what is going on. Lying about it or just keeping information from her would be frustrating and useless. So, good. It's good that she knows.

However, even if she thinks she wants to talk to her mother first, that might not be the best idea. It doesn't have anything to do with whether or not she could "handle" whatever her mother could say.. It's more about control and safety.

If the girl gets to talk to the mother first on the phone, that means that she has control over the situation. It means that no one is protecting her from what her mother might say, and it means she has to look out for herself. It might sound nice to have that sort of control, but what it means is that she, an 11 year-old child, will be forced to make decisions about her own well-being. She, an 11 year-old child, will be the one who has to decide if her mother is cogent or not. She'll have to do that on her own.

That sounds stressful, to me. At that age, it would have made me feel unprotected, unsheltered, as if I had a huge weight of responsibility. As if it were my duty to to decide if she is well enough or not, and face the momentary pain that would come if she is not. Your niece has dealt with this for a long time, and she has found ways to handle amazing amounts of pain, no doubt... But she's still young. Stability and structure are probably still important for her. Hearing her mother say mean things is still painful. Letting her put herself in a position where she will have to risk hearing cruel, abusive comments coming from her mother and then decide, for herself, if she wants to continue hearing it may be too much than she should have to handle, even if she thinks she can. Having you there to make those difficult decisions and shield her from whatever abuse her mother might fling would mean a little less sense of responsibility -- one less thing she has to worry about and struggle with.

So, in more concise words, I would reconsider letting her talk to her mother first. Saying, "I'm sorry, but your mother isn't in a position to talk to you right now" isn't lying to her, nor is it sugar-coating the situation. All it's doing is removing from her the burden of having to face this painful task by herself and her own judgment. I'm not saying she's not mature enough to handle it, I just think it may be better for her if she doesn't have to be.

In total, though, it seems as though you are taking a difficult situation and handling it well.
posted by Ms. Saint at 11:18 AM on January 25, 2008 [3 favorites]

i don't think you did the wrong thing. she knows something is wrong--your confirmation will help her validate that suspicion. she'll probably be more secure in making judgments as a result. so you did the right thing.

however, you should be the gatekeeper. insist that your sister speak to you before she speaks to your daughter. perhaps you could just give her your cell phone number--that way your neice won't accidentally pick up the phone first.

alternatively, set up a daily phone call at a specific time. every night at seven, you place the call, talk to your sister for a few minutes to assess her condition, then hand the phone over to your neice. it may help your sister to have that scheduled, because if nothing else, maybe she'll wait till after the call to start her bender.

good luck. from your previous posts, i think you are actually doing a great job.
posted by thinkingwoman at 11:24 AM on January 25, 2008

You are absolutely doing the right thing. She sounds like a together person. You should definitely consider taking her to a group like Al-A-teen, and--most importantly--do everything in your power to make sure that she doesn't wind up like her mother. Addiction is inherited, like breast cancer, and should be very carefully watched out for, from the beginning, because the longer someone is addicted, the harder it is to kick it, as you know. I knew a father who died from alcoholism, and his son followed a few years later.
posted by Melismata at 11:27 AM on January 25, 2008

Hey, you're doing great. It's a shame that kids of addicts have to lose some innocence prematurely, but it sounds like you're walking a realistic line between protecting her and respecting her relationship with her mom.

I think you did the right thing in warning her and giving her the choice.

Perhaps you and your niece can work together on a few "scripts" to help her back out of the conversation if needed. I'd also suggest developing a "red alert" sign for her to give you if she needs to extricate herself from a conversation with her mom pronto.

It seems like you've already perpetuated a good, active, nonjudgmental "open door" policy on discussion of anything on her mind. Remember that it may be helpful to give her some alternate options for this kind of communicatation -- e-mail, journal (for this specific purpose), recording.
posted by desuetude at 11:29 AM on January 25, 2008

I think it's good you told her. She would have probably found out eventually anyway and the consequence of "protecting people" from bad information, is that when they figure out that you aren't always 100% honest with them, they constantly worry about what your aren't telling them. Just be honest, you don't have to go into all the details, but she should know generally what is going on.
posted by whoaali at 11:35 AM on January 25, 2008

Especially now that you've given her the choice, you shouldn't start screening her calls with her mother unless she asks. Doing so will make her worry more and make her trust you less. (She's probably used to being told/promised something and then having it suddenly need to let her get used to the idea that you're not like that, and that just because she's young doesn't allow you to randomly change your mind about what she's allowed to do--just make one rule, and stick with it until there's a real reason for changing it.)

Anyway, I think you've already done as well as most people could do with this. Casting her mother in a poor light is not so great (although possibly unavoidable), but everything else is fine... Knowing that it's OK to bail on a call if her mother gets unpleasant is really the only thing you need to worry about, and she sounds clear about that, so step back a little and let her test the water for a while.
posted by anaelith at 11:50 AM on January 25, 2008

As a former child of people with serious substance problems and a fervent believer in (controlled) honesty with kids, I'm likely biased. But...

I think what you said was fair, it was honest, but most importantly, it seems as if you're making decisions together – as a family. If you kept it from her, sugar coated it or dictated an edict, you run the risk of alienating your niece and demonstrating that you think she's "just a dumb kid."

She's handled a lot of responsibility too young. But pulling some of that back now is just an insult to her. Check in with her regularly to see if things are OK with the arrangement -- not when the phone is ringing or when she's just off the phone, but when the pressure's off as well.

If she's not in therapy or something of the like, it'd be good to look around for a children of alcoholics/addicts-type support meeting. (although I found one-on-one therapy much more useful).

It's one of those amazing things when you're an enabling kid of an addict and all the sudden someone who doesn't know your parents at all gives you permission to think their selfish a-holes. "I'm not going to talk to you when you call high. Talk to you tomorrow." may be the hardest phrase in the whole world to say.
posted by Gucky at 12:53 PM on January 25, 2008

I grew up with an alcoholic parent. Here's the best advice I can give.

1. There's nothing wrong with telling your niece. She already knows. It's not something that can be hidden.

2. The most important thing is to help your niece understand that she shouldn't ashamed. Trying to keep it a secret makes it seems like this is something to be ashamed of. The better approach ( I think) is to tell the kid that alcoholishm is a medical problem that needs treatment and she be shouldn't be ashamed of this anymore than you would be ashamed if your mom had cancer.

3. Try Alanon or Alateen (if appropriate). They're a good resources.

4. Don't let mom play head tricks on the kid and don't let her visit or call unless she's sober.
posted by bananafish at 1:14 PM on January 25, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ugh, I'm sorry for the problem you're in. You absolutely need to continue to be honest with your niece regarding her mothers condition. It was good that you said that *you thought* her mother was drinking again, rather than saying "your mother is drinking again."

Also, at 11, I think that she is old enough to make the decision for if she wants to talk with her mom. It sounds like she'll definitely continue to take the calls, but eventually she might change. But at 11, and considering what she's already experienced, I think that she'd only resent you for not allowing this.

Ugh, I'm in a similar situation, we recently adopted 3 brothers; age 4, 7 and 10. And they want to see their local 15 year old half brother. Their half brother who's let down his brothers a lot, has made a lot of bad choices, and is continuing to make a lot of bad choices. For the time being we can hide behind the 15yr's social worker, as she won't approve any visits until the 15 year old starts following some guidelines. Lots of other stuff snipped as it's not my ask mefi.

I will say that I'm under the impression that it's Children's Aid policy here to deny a visit if a parent shows up non-sober.

At some level, your neice probably had to become parentified to take care of her mother. She's likely taken care of her mother and herself for a long time, and thinks she can take care of herself, much like my 10 year old does. But really, and 11 or 10 year old doesn't have enough life experience to properly handle themselves, no matter what they think they do. Consider the studies done that the incompetent are not likely to realize that they are incompetent.

As a simple example, my 10 year old was setting his alarm at 4:30am because that's the time he arbitrarily decided he wanted to wake up. He'd wake up, sit around drowsily, until 7am when it's time to getup. He couldn't make the connection with him being so tired at 7:30 that he'd start crying while eating cereal. And I only found out about the alarm when one of his younger brothers had a nightmare at the time. Since then, we let him know that he's not allowed to set the alarm before 7:00 on weekdays and 8:00 on weekends, and he's obeyed. And the crying has stopped, as have the complaints about being so tired that he can't go to school.

I think the best indicator for whether you should become the gatekeeper, is monitor your nieces behavior after a call with her altered mom. If her behavior is good and she seems emotionally OK, then she might be capable of handling it. If the next few days/hours are simply where she's suddenly unexplainably poorly behaved, then you have the explanation. My 10yr couldn't realize that waking up 2.5 hours earlier than need be and just sitting there being too tired to even read was the cause of his tiredness. He just knew that his mom and older brother made a point of sleeping little, and wanted to do the same. Your 11yr won't be putting together talking wtih her mom in a bad state and being in a bad emotional state herself.

Either choice regarding gatekeeper has pluses and minuses that suck. Regardless of the choice, your neice needs a great therapist if she doesn't already have one. As a note, if you do start screening; you *have* to let her know. Trust will be extremely important, and you can not *ever* lie to her. It will of course be good to let the mom know she's not allowed non-sober contact, but I'd hope that you already told her that.
posted by nobeagle at 1:18 PM on January 25, 2008

She already knows. What is important is that, by talking to her in this straightforward manner, you openly acknowledged that there is a problem and gave her options to help her deal with it. I am sure this relieves her of the burden of the hard decision to hang up on her drunken mother and lets her know that she doesn't have to keep this a secret from you. I think you did a good thing.
posted by Foam Pants at 1:21 PM on January 25, 2008

I'm sorry but if you're questioning anything it should be why you would let this happen to a child for 11 years...

Do not screen her calls, I'm sure the girl knows the various behaviors of her own mother. (Drunk dialing - yes that would be quite shocking after growing up with it...)

If you want to help - likely the little chick feels guilty and concerned. She leaves her mother's side for a month or so and look what happens! (I'm just guessing this was the first time your sister has been in a coma, like this?)

Oh and don't fool yourself, what the lass needed was clarification on how to grade the situation. Where does 'coma' fit between same shit different day and dead? This was just a new variation on the familiar. (Do you think your sister has started passing out drunk on a regular basis - all of a sudden from just out of nowhere...?)

Again she's going to worry, she's not there to look after her mother. It might be best if you view her as a parent stripped of the luxury of just kicking her child out 'til she cleans her act up. She needs support and she needs to come to her own conclusion over this... and distance herself from it.

You shielding her (as if she were a child) may not be that helpful. If something does happen to her mother, you prevented her from 'saving' her mum.. but the real damage will be that 'the girl who handles everything' won't see that as a good enough reason. She is supposed to be looking after her mother. How can she justify not finding a way?

Of course we all know this is CRAP, but it will take her years to figure that out. When you could help her to get there now.

:) Give her a big big hug for me (or whatever the rough equivalent of that is for her) She's a fucking champion, it takes many admirable qualities to survive that kind of crap. Other people I've know had siblings, there were good and bad points but an allie was always a useful thing. And she's had no-one. She did well!, I'm incredibly proud of her and damn impressed.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 1:24 PM on January 25, 2008

FWIW ... my dad (the custodial parent) never intervened enough regarding phone calls or visits. I was older than your niece (14?) when my mom relapsed, so maybe he thought I could handle it or maybe he just didn't know what to do. I do wish he had intervened more. Maybe that's wishful thinking on my part. I don't really know if it would have made it better. I think my father thought that my brother and I were the only reason my mom would ever get sober and that's why he didn't intervene. Maybe he was right. On Christmas 1997 ( I was twenty-two), my mom called both my brother and me and told us our Christmas present was her sobriety. She promised she would never drink again and it's been ten years and she hasn't touched a drop. I tell you that to let you know there is hope. People do get sober.

So I guess what I would say is that there are no hard or fast rules here. What worked or didn't work with us may or may not work for your family. My dad tried handling the situation alone and that was a mistake. All three of us should have been in some kind of counseling. This isn't the kind of thing you can handle on your own.
posted by bananafish at 1:29 PM on January 25, 2008

Your niece can either
  1. be distressed by her mother's behavior, deal with it on her own, and wonder what is wrong with the rest of you people that you seem to be ignoring it, or
  2. be distressed by her mother's behavior, but have you to call upon and a vocabulary to talk about it with when she needs to.
I don't know what the right thing to do with the call screening is (but I applaud you for talking to your niece respectfully about it), but I'm certain you made no mistake in talking with her about her mother's problem.
posted by eritain at 1:56 PM on January 25, 2008

I too am certain you only confirmed her suspicions by telling her her mom was drinking again. One of my friends has the policy of always telling her kids they can use her as an excuse not to go somewhere or talk to someone. Offer that to your niece. Let her know you want her relationship with her mother to continue, but if should she need a reason to hang up on her mother for being drunk (or sober and abusive for that matter), she can put it off on you. Let her know it is not up to her to confront her mother or make her quit drinking or to get her treatment. Let her know you love her mother as much as she does even if you hate her behaviour, if that is true. Let her know it is ok to be mad at her mom. Let her know that not all the people who will love her in her lifetime will act like this.
posted by domino at 2:37 PM on January 25, 2008

In case you need any further confirmation at this point, let me add my voice to those folks who were once an 11-year old kid with an alcoholic parent ... I don't see anything wrong with what you said, in the slightest. I suppose the fact that she doesn't -live- with her mom makes things a little different but god, from personal experience (and again, backing up what's already been said), I can confirm that you really do pick up an almost-uncanny 'sixth sense' at a ridiculously early age that lets you just -know- when things aren't at all okay with your substance-abusing parent. You just -know-, I really can't put it any other way. You're not telling your niece anything she doesn't already have very strong suspicions of. I think she's lucky to have you guys as - again - it sounds to me like you're treating her like you should: honestly - like someone who is (in some ways, certainly not all!) sadly more mature and aware than they should have to be when it comes to dealing with certain topics - and yet protectively, letting her know that you -are- there to handle her mom for her when she just. can't. do it.

Please don't think you did anything wrong by letting her know what's up - as Unicorn on the cob so VERY accurately put it, it's very likely that hearing from you what's going on was sort of a relief in a weird way as she very well -could- have been imagining things far, far worse in her own head ... I always found (and still do find) that being told the truth - while definitely painful - was almost a mercy in that it at least helped me to impose some sort of 'boundaries' on what was going on - once they told me, then at least I -knew-, and no matter how bad it was at least it quieted that thing in my brain that was hard at work generating every possible horrific scenario it possibly could.

Finally ... it sounds very much like you're acting out of love and concern, and are making a best-faith effort to do the best you can by your niece. In a situation like this, where there just flat-out ISN'T one "right answer" and never can be, acting according to what feels right to you seems to me like it just -can't- be wrong. She's going to grow up hurt, yes, but not because of you. It sounds to me like she's very lucky to have you.

Best wishes to you all - I'm sure this isn't easy on ANY of you.
posted by zeph at 3:15 PM on January 25, 2008

Other people have already given basically all the advice I've got. I just wanted to say, as a former 11-year-old daughter of an alcoholic, it sounds like you're doing a really good job. Having a stable, loving person like you in her life will make things a lot easier for your niece, regardless of the little ups and downs.
posted by bookish at 3:21 PM on January 25, 2008

Hey, I was an 11 year old girl in that situation! Except there wasn't anyone to get me out of the house. I'm in therapy now! It's pretty fucking hard!

She knows what's going on. As stated above, she has no control over her mother's behavior and please, please get yourself and the kid into counseling. Because if you keep slipping up like that, she's going to be even more screwed. I mean, really, "if you don't talk to her for long enough, she'll clean up for you kid."

When I was 11 I had all the feelings about needing to be a better kid. Better grades, cleaner room, cooking dinner, washing dishes, stopping fights with siblings. Get this kid to a therapist who can help her see that this is not her doing and she cannot undo it either. The longer she feels like this is her job/responsibility/burden/fault, the harder it's going to be for her to be healthy. Not that I'm saying it won't be possible. But I am saying it will be hard.
posted by bilabial at 4:18 PM on January 29, 2008

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